What’s it like being an illustrator? I answer a student’s questions

A girl looking at the camera while smiling

I was recently contacted by a high school student who interviewed me for an art and design assignment. While I’ve kept this person anonymous, these answers give massive insight into me as a professional and how I got to this stage in my career – so I’ve shared them to my blog. Check out a transcript of the interview below!

1. What do you like most about being an illustrator?

I’ve always loved telling (and reading) stories and drawing pictures. I’ve been this way my entire life, entering competitions as a 6-8 year old and coming home every day to draw after school. Illustration doesn’t try to be overconceptual or too clever – it’s one of the simple pleasures in life, like enjoying a novel or watching a TV show. When applied educationally, it can also help people learn through visuals instead of having to read. I find this to be a nice contrast to a lot of over-complication these days – yes, you can use it to convey a complex message if you want, or you can just… enjoy it.

2. What do you least like about being an illustrator?

Completing a big illustration project is difficult because it’s incredibly time-consuming. You need to be paid well for your efforts and have clear deadlines or you will be tempted to procrastinate. 

Sometimes it’s also difficult turning your passion into a job because it takes some of the fun out of it and means you’ve got little energy left for your own projects. My creative job is so demanding that I don’t draw for fun anymore – all my steam is taken by my work!

3. Did you go to university and if so, what did you study?

I did – I started out in 2014, at art school at the University of New South Wales (College of Fine Arts – now called UNSW Art and Design). I really disliked it as I found it pretentious, expensive, and impractical, so I took 6 months off, worked a part-time job, travelled to Japan, and then re-enrolled at the University of Canberra studying a combined Psychology and Arts degree. I completed the entire Psych degree with a HD average and chose Design and Japanese Language as my Arts majors, getting a Distinction-High Distinction in design and a Credit-Distinction in languages (which I had to go to ANU to undertake).

4. What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an illustrator?

Reconsider going to university – you’ll be taking on high levels of debt (which keeps growing from indexation* 🫠) when your portfolio and evidence of your practical skill is what will land you jobs. If it comes down to you and another candidate, and they’re literally just better than you, a prospective employer will not care that you have a degree and they don’t. They will choose the other candidate.

A TAFE course might be more appropriate so you can build practical skills, but in the long run, you may come out ahead without official qualifications in illustration if you’re absolutely certain you want to pursue that path. My graphic design supervisor for my final-year (university) design internship was self-taught – and I’ve frankly learnt the majority of my practical skills on the job or from YouTube, because many universities assume you already know how to use all the key design programs or can figure it out yourself (and this was soooo annoying!). I also ended up starting my own business, so haven’t actually needed to show anybody my degrees since I graduated.

If you do go to university, I’d study something else and take electives in illustration so that you’ve got a practical and actionable qualification while pursuing your illustration career. A bachelor’s degree in business would be an excellent advantage and that will also help you build your social skills and engage in collaborative work with other students. Or, if you want to work for a company (such as publishers) rather than running a business, a Bachelor of Fine Arts might be suitable just so you can show them your ability to learn and critically think alongside that crucial portfolio.

5. How did you start out your career as being an illustrator?

I’ve always been good at drawing, but decided to start a graphic design business in my final year of uni because I was sick of my existing part-time job. I’d started to get casual requests for work from friends-of-friends and wondered if I could grow it into a full-time business – 6 years down the track, and now been doing this full-time for 4 years – so yep, it worked well!

6. What made you choose this career path?

Most of my life, there was no question that I wanted a career in art – until my first year at art school, because I truly got so little enjoyment out of that course. Doing the combined degree in Psychology, Design and Japanese, I had 3 options to pursue after graduation – and I ended up choosing graphics.

The main reason I chose graphics (and illustration) is because I had momentum in the business I’d started. There was no point stopping and applying for another job, because I already had a base of clients and things were growing! If I stopped, I’d never know what it could have become.

I also veered into graphic design instead of fine arts or exclusively illustration-based work, because I love the way graphics make art functional and usable; I love the way they tie in with marketing. I just continue to offer illustration too.

All of that said – I’ve always maintained that if I get sick of design and illustration or if my business becomes unviable, I’ll go back to uni and do my Masters in psychology. Australia is chronically short on quality psychological healthcare, so I’d really like to be a clinical psychologist and make a fundamental difference to people’s lives.

7. Are you where you saw yourself being?

This is a really interesting question because, when I started my business, I didn’t know where it would go. I was hopeful that one day I’d be able to turn over $75,000 per year and have to register for GST – I accomplished that in 2021. I was then hopeful that I’d be able to pass $100,000 in gross revenue – I did that in 2023.

And yet, still – at my low times, I struggle with imposter syndrome and kicking myself for choosing to become self-employed, because my friends are starting to get married and break into the housing market while I still wouldn’t qualify for a mortgage. Revenue is not the same as profit, and my take-home income at the end of the year last year was bang-on the national median. My partner is on a low income and doesn’t live in Australia, so I don’t have that support either – financially, I’m very much on my own and still have a long way to go before I feel truly comfortable and happy in what I make. All this despite being WAY too busy and having to turn people away most of last year – that’s why I raised my prices for new clients this past February.

That said, it’s not all about finances. My business allowed me to get through COVID relatively unscathed because my job has always been virtual and remote, and I’m not answerable to anyone except my clients. From December 2022 to April 2023, I was also able to travel the world while working – through 24 countries and more than 50 cities across 3 continents. Most people can’t do that because it requires quitting your job or taking super extended leave – so it’s an absolute privilege.

So… to answer your question – I’ve actually exceeded my expectations of where I saw myself being back when I was a high school or uni student. But as you grow and change, your expectations change with it. The goalposts move. There’s always “something else” you could do or achieve, and what you’ve accomplished doesn’t feel so great anymore.

But that’s all a lie – what you’ve done is fantastic and it’s just your mind playing tricks. So sitting back and taking note of how far you’ve come is so important – as is thinking forward another 5 years and realising you’ll probably have overcome your current challenges then, too. It really requires patience and long-term thinking.

8. What job did you start out with and how old were you?

Professionally, I started out in this job! I’ve never worked in an agency or for a different employer professionally. The only other jobs I’ve had were part-time retail/hospitality jobs.

The reason for that is that I started this business when I was at university, and it was already showing signs of success by graduation in mid-2019 – so there was no point in stopping and applying to something different.

I registered my business on (I believe) 31 March 2018, so that’s just over 6 years ago and I was 22 at the time. I’m now 28.

*NB: this interview happened before retrospective HECS reforms were announced this month.

That’s it for the interview! Do any of these answers surprise you? Do you disagree with any of my advice – especially about university? Let me know in the comments! And of course – if you’re interested in booking in for an illustration project, get in touch.

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